Ancient Athens

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Unification of Attica

Athens was one of the few Greek cities whose habitation was not interrupted by the end of the Bronze Age. Athens was relatively prosperous in the Proto-Geometric and Geometric Periods. It is unproven whether any of its political institutions survived the Bronze Age.

Attica (The Athenian hinterland) consisted of several plains divided by hills. The central plain held the city of Athens and a strip of coast, including the Bay of Phaleron. Farther west was the plain of Thria, on which the largest settlement was Eleusis. Eastern Attica consisted partly of low-lying territories and partly of hills; and it also held several settlements.

A process of Attic unification composed of two stages. In the first, the strongest settlement in each plain acquired control over the other towns of its plain; thus, three of four states emerged. In the second stage, Athens, that already controlled the central plain, absorbed the communities of the outlying districts. The second stage was completed around the first half of the 7th century BC.

What resulted was a unitary state: the political organs of Athens were the sole focus of Attic activity. In the 7th century, public authority was still weak; real power belonged to local powerful families, each commanding numerous dependants. At least some of the political conflicts of the 7th and 6th century were of a regionalist type, i.e., struggles from leading families in the outlying districts against the central plain, Athens.

Pre-Solonian Political Institutions

The chief political institutions of the unitary state were an executive board governed by nine Archons, a Council and a public assembly. Tradition held that Athens had once being ruled by kings but whose powers had been diminished in two ways: other offices were created to take over their functions, and the term of all the officers was reduced to one year. There is no clear evidence on how the archons were selected for office.

The Council came to be called the ‘The Council of the Areopagus’, because it met on a hill west of the Acropolis of the same name. The council consisted of all who had held any of the nine archonships. It had begun as a council advising the kings. Athenian writers of the 5th and 4th centuries knew that the council had once been powerful, but their attempts to define its former functions produced little more than vague generalities. Probably its ascendancy in the Archaic Period rested not on specific powers but on a personal factor. The minimum age for the nine archons was 30 years. As one of the archons, a man had only one year in office, but thereafter he could expect 30 years as a councilor. The system was one of reverence towards the Council, as the archons would soon be members of that body.

Around 632 BC, an uprising led by Cylon tested the stability of the state. Cylon had married the daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara. Encouraged by an oracle, Cylon gathered his friends and a force from his father in law and seized the Acropolis during the Olympic festival. The Athenians rallied behind the archons however, and Cylon escaped without his followers. His followers made terms with the archons, who agreed to spare their lives; however, as the Cylonians came down from the Acropolis, the archons killed them. Later, those responsible for the breach of faith were exiled as being cursed, but later were allowed to return. The scandal of the curse was revived against their descendants, such as Cleisthenes.

Cylon hoped to make himself tyrant, but attempts to regard him as a champion of popular discontent have little evidential support. Rather, it is more likely that he was a rival of the powerful Alcmaenoid Family, who dominated politics in Athens at the time.

Mystery surrounds the activities attributed to Draco in 621 BC. Later Athenian tradition said he wrote down all the laws that subsequently were repudiated by Solon during his reforms. Draco dealt mainly with homicides in his laws. The law provided that if a man killed another unintentionally his case should be judged by a ‘court of fifty-one’, called the Ephetai; if they upheld his plea, the relatives of the victim could grant him pardon by a unanimous vote, but if the relatives declined, the state provided the killer with a safe-conduct to the border. By recognizing the killer’s intention as distinct from his act, the law became more sophisticated; by providing a safe-conduct to the border, the state asserted its authority.

By the 4th century BC, Athens had around five homicide courts, including the Areopagite council, which dealt with intentional homicide. This system of courts observed other distinctions besides those based on intention; for example, it recognized a category of lawful homicide, and it treated the killer of a slave or foreigner differently from the killer of a citizen. It is unclear whether all or parts of the system were attributed to Draco or not. Nevertheless, the state had, by 621 BC, asserted itself in the originally private sphere of killing and the blood feud.

Reforms of Solon

For further details on the actual reforms, see the full text article on Solon.

Athens was prosperous in the Geometric Period, but in the 7th century BC its economy was comparatively backward. It didn’t found any colonies abroad, a sign of political weakness at a time when the population of Attica, like the rest of Greece, was growing.

Early in the 6th century, Solon, spoke of the antagonism between rich and poor. The economic crisis had often been regarded as the result of impoverishment, the political discontent a result of the practice of poor people selling themselves and their families into slavery in order to pay off debts they couldn’t afford to repay.

Solon was archon in 594 BC and was given authority to reform the laws so as to prevent civil strife.

Peisistratus and his Sons

For further detail on actual rule of Peisistratus and his sons, see Peisistratus.

The main rivalry in Athenian politics around 560 BC was between groups called ‘the men of the plain’ led by Lycurgus and one called ‘the men of the shore’ by Megacles. Peisistratus, who won popularity by commanding a successful campaign against Megara, organised a third group; ‘the men from beyond the hills’. Pretending to have being wounded by his enemies, Peisistratus persuaded the assembly to grant him a bodyguard of club bearers and with these he seized the Acropolis in 560 BC. Within a few months, Megacles and Lycurgus joined forced and drove out Peisistratus from Athens.

A few years later Megacles quarreled with Lycurgus and allied himself with Peisistratus, and he later returned to Athens. In 556 BC however, Peisistratus quarreled with Megacles and the second tyranny collapsed. This time Peisistratus left Attica and stayed away for ten years, consolidating his resources, exploiting silver mines and raising money. In 546 BC, using Eretria as a base, he set sail for Athens, landing at Marathon unopposed. When he began marching towards Athens his enemies brought their forces from the city against them, but he defeated them at the Battle of Pallene and met no further resistance. They tyranny that Peisistratus won was passed on to his sons after his death.

Hippias assumed major control, but allowed some influence to his brothers. Under their rule, Hippias ensured some of the archons elected were his supporters, ensuring a steady flow of support into the Areopagus once they served their term, allowing him to continue his rule until 514 BC, when the tyranny began to dismantle.

Two men – Harmodius and Aristogeiton – felt they had been betrayed by Hipparchus, a younger brother of Hippias, and they plotted to overthrow the family. They succeeded only in killing Hipparchus, and in the consequent investigation, Hippias came to believe that the discontent was widespread. He therefore made his rule more suppressive, killing many Athenians. The Alcmaenoids went into exile again. A year or so later they returned and fortified themselves near Leipsydrium, but were driven away by Hippias’ army.

The Alcmaenoid’s thereafter resorted to diplomacy. They won the favour of the Delphic Oracle, which urged the Spartans repeatedly to overthrow Hippias. One small expedition failed, but a later one, 510 BC, the Spartans led a land expedition under King Cleomenes I. He defeated the Thessalian cavalry and besieged the tyrants on the Acropolis until they admitted defeat and agreed to leave Attica.

Reforms of Cleisthenes

For further detail on the actual reforms, and his life, see full text article at Cleisthenes.

Some time after the fall of Hippias, rivalry developed between Cleisthenes and Isagoras, who was archon in 508 BC. Isagoras appealed to the Spartan king, with whom he was friends, and Cleomenes himself came to Athens demanding the expulsion of Cleisthenes and 700 families descended from those who been cursed by slaying the followers of Cylon. Further, he tried to dissolve the Council and replace it with 300 supporters of Isagoras; the Athenians rallied behind the Council and expelled the Spartan king. Cleomenes once more tried to make Isagoras master of Athens: He brought an army from the Peloponnesian League to Eleusis and persuaded the Chalcidians and Boeotians to attack Attica from the north and northeast respectively. However, at Eleusis, the Corinthian contingent in the Peloponnesian force mutinied, and the army disbanded. The Athenians then defeated the Boeotians and Chalcidians successively.

Cleisthenes became powerful in Athens afterwards and instituted a number of key reforms.

Reforms of Ephialtes

For further details on the actual reforms, and his life, see full text article at Ephialtes.

A rivalry emerged between two important Athenian generals in 460s BC, Cimon and Ephialtes. Ephialtes was the leader of the radical democrats; Cimon the leader of the more conservative coalition in Athens and the champion of the aristocracy. In 465 BC the Helots revolted against the Spartans and the pro-Spartan Cimon narrowly won support to send an army to help Sparta. When the Athenian army was dismissed by Sparta, Cimon was discredited and ostracised by the Assembly. This allowed Ephialtes to pursue a series of reforms free from his rival.

Ephialtes tackled the power of the Areopagus and increased the power of the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly. Furthermore, he introduced payment by the state to public servants, ensuring that poverty was no longer a barrier to serving the people. He also brought greater accountability to government, introducing audits of officials accounts and making public servants undergo an examination in a public court at the end of their annual term.

Ephialtes was assassinated as a result of his reforms, but his political revolution had been consolidated, and his reforms became permanent.